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Bill Frisell, Kevin Breit, Marilyn Crispell, Gerry Hemingway, Andrew Hill, Hamid Drake and others

At the Guelph Jazz Festival

On Friday and Saturday in Guelph, Ont.

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There were a dozen of them, the trumpeters, trombonists, saxophonists and percussionists of the Sun Ra Arkestra, resplendent in sequined red-and-gold wraps and matching berets. North they marched on Gordon Street, moving slowly in the Saturday noon-hour sun past the farmers market toward downtown Guelph, Ont., with a small entourage ambling along in tow.

Yes, the jazz festival was back in town, bringing with it musicians from Germany, the United States, Canada and, putatively, in the Arkestra's case, Saturn -- or at least "somewhere there," as its members like to sing now, pointing skyward.

What would the Guelph Jazz Festival be without a hint of the exotic, a dash of the improbable? Actually, the festival itself has answered to that description for most of its history as an unlikely celebration of the jazz avant-garde in -- of all places -- a university town of 97,000 an hour west of Toronto.

But two new themes had emerged by Saturday afternoon in this, the event's eighth year. One, musically, was that the program for 2001 seemed comparatively mainstream by Guelph's usually venturesome standard. And two, logistically, that the festival has started to burst at the seams, pressured by its own success.

Attendance, according to the festival's artistic director Ajay Heble, is "absolutely up," leading to projections of a surplus on a budget just shy of $200,000. Heble called "premature" any thought of revamping the festival in response, but acknowledged the need to look at putting the 800-seat River Run Centre to greater use, citing its "level of professionalism" in the face of growing questions about the suitability of the festival's other locales -- church sanctuaries, an art gallery and a cinema -- as concert venues. (To wit: It's odd that a festival of such great vision should have such lousy sightlines.)

The festival's mainstream turn, meanwhile, was emphatically not Heble's intention. He invites his musicians to take risks. If the musicians don't bite, though, what's an artistic director to do?

Guitarists Bill Frisell and Kevin Breit, who appeared together in a sweltering Chalmers United Church on Friday night, didn't bite. Frisell's was the marquee name in a lineup of 25 concerts and workshops that began last Wednesday with a duo of guitarist Sonny Greenwich and pianist Marilyn Lerner and concluded Sunday night with guitarist Michael Occhipinti's Creation Dream featuring clarinetist Don Byron.

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The American Frisell and the Canadian Breit are imaginative players with a comparably broad range of interests and a certain zany streak. They need a push, though, and neither would do the other the honour. Instead, Alphonse and Gaston to the end, they picked and occasionally grinned their way sweetly through an hour of ditties that left the potential of the encounter largely unfulfilled.

The American team of pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Gerry Hemingway, who opened the evening together, offered a few impressionistic washes of sound and, more valuably, a couple of discernible tunes in a powerful performance emotionally, though not a particularly daring one musically.

Indeed, the greatest risk of the festival's Friday and Saturday shows was run by the veteran New York pianist Andrew Hill, who chose to make his solo piano concert at the River Run Centre as forbidding as musically possible with extended passages of brittle, probing dissonance that allowed the listener few melodic or rhythmic points of entry.

The Chicago drummer Hamid Drake, on the other hand, made friends everywhere he played during the same two days, first as the muscle behind pianist Georg Graewe's fine German-American quartet with clarinetist Frank Gratkowski and bassist Kent Kessler, and then in an inspired duo concert with Gerry Hemingway that created a classic Guelph jazzfest moment. After the two drummers had filled the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre with a particularly thunderous exchange, a little girl off to one side was heard to say, "That was loud." As a roomful of adults nodded happily in agreement, Drake turned around, welcomed her and said, "Thank you."

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